Did you ever wonder what makes a society happy? Is a happy society full of citizens who focus on their own happiness, people whose happiness then spills-over to others around them? Or, maybe, a happy society is composed of citizens who are sensitive to people around them, thereby making other people happy.

In search for the answer to the question of happy societies, my colleagues and I started from the observation that numerous cross-country studies indicate that individualism predicts societal happiness. That is, societies that emphasize individuals’ needs and goals over those of the group tend to be happier. However, it has been unclear why members of individualistic societies report higher happiness. One could conclude that focusing on oneself and one’s own goals—as individualistic people do—promotes societal happiness. But our research challenges this conclusion.

We analyzed data from over 100,000 individuals collected across more than 90  countries. We found that societal happiness is higher in those individualistic societies where four specific attitudes are highly endorsed—tolerance, trust, civic engagement, and non-materialism.  The association between these attitudes and happiness was very strong and was obtained even when other factors—such as wealth of the society—were taken into account.

But what do tolerance, trust, civic engagement, and non-materialism have in common? Why are societies in which these four attitudes are popular happier? The simple answer seems to be that each of these four attitudes benefits other people.  Being tolerant obviously benefits the people around us. Likewise, trusting strangers benefits other people. Our own civic engagement may bring us personal benefits, but it also benefits other people and improves society as a whole. And being non-materialistic also makes people less focused on accumulating money and possessions and more focused on other important issues.

These four attitudes can be thought of as the “open society” attitudes, in tribute to philosopher Karl Popper, who advocated values of tolerance, trust, civic engagement and non-materialism for maintaining an open, democratic society.  Popper’s postulates seem to make societies not only more open, but also happier.

Interestingly, although these four “open society” attitudes benefit society as a whole, they  do not substantially promote people’s individual satisfaction directly. People who endorse “open society” attitudes are not considerably more satisfied with life than people who are prejudiced, suspicious, uninvolved in civic issues, and materialistic.

To create in a happy society, we need to endorse attitudes that benefit the people around us even if they don’t directly benefit us personally. Happiness does not come back to us through “karma” when we behave well—it comes back indirectly when people around us share attitudes that benefit other people. In short, the happiest societies are those in which people hold and demonstrate attitudes that benefit others.

The fact that societal happiness relies on the effects of our other-benefitting attitudes has important practical implications. The direct benefits to people who adopt the open society attitudes are very weak, if present at all. Therefore, if we wish to enhance societal happiness, incentives to adopt these attitudes need to be orchestrated by governing bodies, international and local organizations, and every single person who desires a happier society.  

Finally, although the open society attitudes arise in societies that emphasize individualism, in many ways, these values are quite collectivistic. Let’s remember that even in individualistic cultures, the quality of the society depends on how we treat each other.  

For Further Reading

Krys, K., Uchida, Y., Oishi, S., & Diener, E. (2019). Open society fosters satisfaction: Explanation to why individualism associates with country level measures of satisfaction. The Journal of Positive Psychology, 14, 768-778.

Kuba Krys is Assistant Professor at the Institute of Psychology of the Polish Academy of Sciences; he loves Japan, where he lived for two years working at the Kokoro Research Center of the Kyoto University.